The office of President of the United States is a position of unprecedented power and influence yet the powers and duties of the president, indeed the office itself, can often be misunderstood or are rarely considered. The role of the president is almost exclusively viewed through the lens of the personal, focusing on the individual and their achievements rather than the office they hold or how those achievements came to be. The American Presidency by Professor William Howell, of University of Chicago, can be seen as a counterpoint to this view – an examination of the office rather than the man, an attempt to explore the presidency as an institution governed by rules, laws and democratic norms in American politics.
Rather than focus solely on the president as an individual, Howell’s book tackles the ‘institutional context in which presidents work, the institutional foundations of executive power, and the institutional incentives that shape and inform presidential decisions and action’. [I] After briefly discussing the origins of the presidency, Howell dives into the rise and evolution of the U.S Presidency as an American institution in the 19th and 20th century. Following this, Howell tackles the four key components of this institutional office: how presidents are selected, how do they govern, how do they enact policy, and how do they handle their public relations.
While the material is hardly original, Howell succeeds in pulling together the seemingly disparate strands of data and information to form a cohesive overview of the office of the President of the United States. His experience in political science and his grasp on the subject is obvious from the outset and his analysis of the various and often differing views of the presidency as an institutional force is unmatched. Seamlessly matching academic analysis with hard data, Howell gives the reader a clear sense of the issues that he discusses, working through the details of each relevant section in delineable steps which helps to offset the density of the textbook itself and the complexity of the subject matter, particularly when describing the structure of the presidency itself and the powers it does, and does not, hold.
Howell runs against the popular and influential narrative of the personal presidency, identifying the growing gap between pundits who favour the idea and academics who are more interested in the formal and bureaucratic role of the president. Richard Neustadt’s seminal work, Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents, is cited as being the most influential tract covering the individual traits of a president and is referred to as an example of the discussion of the personality of the president sand how their success is determined by their ‘professional reputation’ as well as ‘public prestige’. [II] Howell offers a brief critique of this model to introduce the reader to the various layers of institutional analysis that provide the backbone of the text.
Indeed, Howell’s approach offers a deeper understanding to how and why presidents behave the way they do, whether they embody the idea of the institutional presidency such as Woodrow Wilson or defy as in the case of Donald Trump. Personal and psychological factors are assessed from a critical standpoint rather than simply described to the reader. Even in the extraordinary circumstances of the latter case, or in the case of Richard Nixon whose actions also pushed against the institution with Watergate, Howell’s focus on the institutional analysis provides a more nuanced understanding to the limits of presidential power and how it can inform the actions of the president as well, allowing us to judge their success or failure from a more objective standpoint.
Yet Howell is always careful not to let the institutional approach to politics override the value of evaluating the personal perspective of the presidency. Howell avoids the rigidity that often characterises the work of scholars such as Terry M. Moe who considered presidents as ‘faceless, nameless, institutional actors’. [III] To Howell, this view is simply one of the levels of institutional analysis detailed in his introduction and, by his own admissions, there are feature of the American political system ‘where the institutional method has very little to say’. [IV] Although Howell does not dogmatically reject the personal aspects of the presidents who held office, he presents their decisions in office as being influenced primarily by the nature of the institution itself. As Howell puts it, the personal approach often relegates the political institutions themselves, never accounting for the ‘basic fact that the presidency is embedded in a highly institutionalized system’ along with ‘the judicial and legislative checks all president face’. [V]
The power of a president is one of the main themes of Howell: how that power is expressed, enforced and challenged within the bounds of the Constitution and the system of checks and balances that Americans take for granted. Howell takes the view that however it is expressed, presidential power is based on outcomes and that in the face of modern, often extraordinary expectations from the public for favourable outcomes, ‘presidents do not have nearly enough power to meet these expectations’. [VI] The formal, and often informal, expressions of power neatly set up Howell’s later examination of how that power is checked and challenged, especially when the ambiguity within the Constitution can encourage presidents to advance their own agendas and expand the limits of their power.
Overall, Howell’s book reminds us that institutions are not static; rather, they are constantly evolving and shifting in line with the political issues of the day while often resting not on laws, but on precedents and the performances of predecessors. In his analysis of presidential elections, Howell writes that ‘the sanctity of American elections relies, to an almost frightening and underappreciated extent, on a shared commitment to democratic norms’. [VII] Such an assertion lines up with his claim that many of the political questions and problems that the Framers contended with persist within the American political system, a fact that is neatly reflected in Howell’s analysis of the presidency itself.
The result is a detailed and comprehensive textbook that shines a much-needed light on the executive office of the President of the United States, representing the latest scholarship surrounding the American Presidency. It is an incisive study and a perfect primer for students eager for a more balanced understanding of one of the most powerful – and misunderstood – political offices in the United States.
[I] William G. Howell, The American Presidency: An Institutional Approach to Executive Politics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2023), 1
[II] Richard E. Neustadt, Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents: The Politics of Leadership from Roosevelt to Reagan (New York: Free Press, 1991), 203
[III] Terry M. Moe, “Presidents, Institutions and Theory” in Researching the Presidency: Vital Questions, New Approaches, ed. George C. Edwards, John H. Kessel, and Bert A. Rockman (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1993), 379
[IV] William G. Howell, The American Presidency, 12
[V] Ibid, 7
[VI] Ibid, 110
[VII] Ibid, 211